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“Oh Guillaume!  By Elizabeth Strout: NPR


“Oh Guillaume!  By Elizabeth Strout: NPR

Elizabeth Strout’s latest, her eighth book, put me on the front line: “I would like to say a few things about my first husband, William. The straightforward and straightforward speaker is Lucy Barton, who we’ve grown to love in My name is Lucy Barton (2016) and Everything is possible (2017), where we learned how she overcame a traumatic and impoverished childhood in Amgash, Ill. To become a successful writer living in New York.).

In Ah Guillaume! Lucy, now 64, mourns the death of her beloved second husband, a cellist named David Abramson. She finds a welcome distraction in revisiting her relationship with her first husband, William Gerhardt, the womanizer father of her two adult daughters. She had left William, a parasitologist who never let the women in his life get too close, after nearly 20 years of marriage. But against all odds, they remained friendly. Seven years his senior, he’s also going through some unfortunate changes in his life (which I’ll leave to the reader to discover) and enlists Lucy to help him navigate them.

She tells us that in her sorrow for David, “I felt sorrow for William too. Sorrow is a – oh, such a solitary thing; it’s terror, I think. It’s like sliding outside a very long glass building with no one seeing you. “

In this time when their loneliness and their vulnerabilities coincide, Lucy agrees to accompany William on a trip to Maine. Her mother, Catherine Cole, was born there, although she never returned after leaving her first husband. (She met her second husband, William’s father, one of hundreds of German prisoners of war from Hitler’s army sent to do agricultural work in Maine after the war, while he was working on the her first husband’s potato farm.) Lucy says she loved her late mother. -law, who recognized the limits of her education and took her under his wing – even though Catherine said to her friends: “It’s Lucy, Lucy comes from nothing.” It’s one of the many memories that take on a new cast in light of what William and Lucy learn about Catherine on their road trip.

As My name is Lucy Barton, Oh William! is a fictional memory novel, a form that beautifully showcases the formidable heart and limpid voice of this character. “Because I am a novelist”, explains Lucy in Ah Guillaume!, “I have to write this almost like a novel, but it’s true – as true as I can make it.” Lucy’s determination to tell her personal story with honesty and no frills is reminiscent of Hemingway, but also underscores fiction’s privileged access to emotional truths.

A memoir, fictional or otherwise, is only as interesting as its central character, and Lucy Barton could easily hold our attention through many other books. What Strout is trying to understand here – how the past never really passed, the lasting effects of trauma, and the importance of trying to understand others despite their essential mystery and unfamiliarity – is neither so straightforward nor quite so. simple as it seems at first glance. . Ah Guillaume! explores William and Lucy’s relationship, past and present, with impressive nuance and subtlety – including their early attraction, missteps, deep and lasting memories and bonds, and their lingering susceptibility, vulnerability and dependence on each other others.

You don’t need to have read Strout’s previous books on Lucy Barton to enjoy this one, but there’s a good chance you will. (Everything is possible, like her Olive Kitteridge novels, is made up of related stories.) Brief recaps of Lucy’s story are cleverly incorporated into Ah Guillaume!, which Lucy always precedes by saying that she has written on the subject in more depth elsewhere. From her dark childhood home, she comments: “I wrote about some of the things that happened in this house, and I don’t really care to write more. But we were really terribly poor. So I will just say this: When I was seventeen I won a full scholarship to this college just outside of Chicago [where she met William, her science instructor] … [and] my life has changed. Ah that has changed! “

About those Oh: It’s amazing how much meaning and character can be packed into two letters that add up to an exhale and an exclamation. The long-divorced couple’s journey through Maine provides rich fodder for Lucy’s titular sighs, which convey a mixture of exasperation and loving affection for her ex-husband’s weaknesses – from her undersized khakis to her mistaken hope that by visiting an abandoned small town he will be able to garner the goodwill of a woman who was once crowned Miss Potato Blossom Queen.

Strout convincingly captures the fluctuating feelings that even the people closest to us can cause, and the recognition by not always kind exes that “all that shit” in their past is “part of the fabric of who we are”. At one point, Lucy says of William: “Sometimes in our marriage I hated him. I saw, with a sort of dull terror disk in my chest, that with his pleasant distance, his gentle expressions, he was not available. Yet soon after, she claims that for a very long time, even after they both moved on to other spouses, he was the one person who made her feel safe.

Being aware of Lucy Barton’s innermost thoughts – and, more specifically, deep inside a Strout book – makes readers feel safe. We know we are in good hands.

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